Mind Games – Science’s Attempts at Thought Control

If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind is controllable – what then?
— George Orwell, in 1984

The concept of brainwashing was first used to describe certain obscure procedures carried out in early Communist China, but the idea of “cleansing the mind” can be traced back all the way to fourth century Confucian thinkers.

In Popular Western culture, the word immediately evokes George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and experiments by Nazi scientists and the CIA, as well as Soviet intelligence services. Science’s interest in the possibility of controlling the mind dates back some 20 years before Orwell’s publication of his novel. The first published research on the subject was Chaffee and Light’s A Method for Remote Control of Electrical Stimulation of the Nervous System from 1934. The article recounted experiments carried out on animals using brain implants and electric waves to control brain and motor functions, including getting a monkey to sleep or inducing gastric secretions in a dog.

Electromagnetic Control (EMR)

In 1964, electromagnetic-response researcher Dr. José Delgado from Cordoba, Spain, performed one of the most spectacular public acts of thought control ever, climbing into a bullring and halting the bull in its tracks by pushing a button that controlled an electrode implanted in his brain.

In the US, research on EMR techniques was largely carried out under the wing of the CIA, and the information was classified as top secret for several decades. However, in the 1990s, the US military admitted having worked on developing EMR weapons. When the USSR’s system collapsed, Russian “mind control” research was exposed. Named acoustic psycho-correction, the Russian research program involved developing the capability to control minds and alter behavior through the transmission of:

specific commands via static or white noise bands into the human subconscious without upsetting other intellectual functions.


Within the CIA’s program MK-ULTRA, the infamous Dr. Ewen Cameron used electro-shock therapy, LSD and other psychotropic drugs and various forms of psychological torture on children and adults, trying to de-program the brain in order to re-program it with new information. The aims of these experiments were varied, including the extraction of information from spies and war prisoners and the programming of individuals to carry out counter-espionage missions and attacks, without their consent.

MK-ULTRA was proven to have performed all sorts of damaging tests and experiments on humans without their consent, with devastating effects for their lives, in many cases, including death and suicide.

Weapons Targeting the Brain

As early as 1994, Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg referred to non-lethal weapons in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Many of the non-lethal weapons under consideration utilize infrasound or electromagnetic energy (including lasers, microwave, or radio-frequency radiation, or visible light pulsed at brain-wave frequency) for their effects. These weapons are said to cause temporary or permanent blinding, interference with mental processes, modification of behavior and emotional response, seizures,severe pain, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea, or disruption of internal organ functions in various other ways… The current surge of interest in electromagnetic and similar technologies makes the adoption of a protocol explicitly outlawing the use of these dehumanizing weapons an urgent matter.

According to the latest issue of Synesis, which was entirely devoted to Neurotechnology in National Security, Intelligence and Defense, drugs that can be useful in combat or special operations include:

  • cognitive and motor stimulants
  • somnolent agents
  • mood altering agents, some of which can induce paranoia in larger doses
  • “affiliative” agents
  • convulsants

The review of the current military implications of neurotechnology goes on to affirm that,

while some of these agents can be used to enhance the neuro-cognitive and motor performance of (one’s own) troops (e.g., low does of stimulants, mood altering drugs, etc), others have apparent utility against hostile forces (e.g., somnolent, psychotogenic, af? liative, and convulsant agents).

With the first of these objectives in mind, the US military implemented the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program earlier this year, which uses cognitive behavioral principles, instead of drugs, to “better prepare” soldiers and families for war. Although this type of “programming” is seen as a less harmful form of mind control, the program has also encountered many detractors.

The Smirnov Way

In 2007, the US Department of Homeland Security closed a deal with Moscow’s Psychotechnology Research Institute. Now run by his widow, Professor Russalkina, the institute’s achievements were largely the work of Dr. Igor Smirnov.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), Smirnov had measured brain waves to create a map of the subconscious. Later, he used recorded subliminal messages to physically alter that landscape by means of the power of suggestion. Some of Smirnov’s reported experiments include using visual and aural subliminal messages to re-program a drug addict to become more interested in the upcoming birth of his son than in securing his next dose of heroin.

The Homeland Security Department became more interested in the Institute’s work on account of their Semantic Stimuli Response Measurements Technology (SSRM) Tek project. This is a software-based “mind reading” technology which tests a subject’s involuntary responses to subliminal messages. The idea is to use it, for example, at airport screening posts, flashing subliminal images, such as photos of Bin Laden and the World Trade Center, as part of an innocent videogame. Passengers’ involuntary responses are said to be different for regular people and those plotting a terrorist attack.

Although there are companies working on further research and the practical implementation of SSRM Tek, such as Canada’s NORTHAM Psychotechnologies, it hasn´t been used for mass-screening at airports as yet.

The Future

Ever since tetraplegic patient Matthew Nagle was able to control a cursor with his brain, through neural implants in 2004, it would seem logical that the reverse processes of having external agents controlling the mind should no longer be the stuff of science fiction.

In a way, knowing everything that was achieved scientifically in terms of thought control and brain programming as early as the 1950’s and 60’s, many people wonder that very little progress has been made since Dr. Cameron’s times. However, one can naturally assume that the problem has much more to do with the secrecy of military programs than with a slow scientific development.

The ethical questions are, of course, the central issue here. While Dr. Smirnov claimed that he had often refused offers by Russian mob types to help them tweak reluctant business associates’ wills; many researchers have historically had no problem selling their information to the highest bidder.

In fact, the ethical problems associated with this type of research today have more to do with where the financing can come from. Although techniques that might permit control over the human brain’s reactions might be extremely beneficial to treat certain chronic psychiatric conditions, it has been largely military and intelligence services that have been willing to fund this research with a very different agenda altogether. Scientists are faced with the difficult choice between working for government organizations, knowing full well what their research will be used for, or cutting down their experiments, for lack of funding.

Today, the horrifying landscapes that Orwell imagined are all scientifically plausible — the thought police might be implemented and thought crime might be discovered by scanning a subject’s brain; there is no scientific impediment for all that. The question lies simply with who has access to the technology and what are they prepared to use it for.


Taylor, K. (2004). Brainwashing: the science of thought control. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hatch Rosenberg, B. “Non-lethal” weapons may violate treaties. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 1994;(50)5:44.

Giordano, J, Wurzman, R. Neurotechnologies as weapons in national intelligence and defense – an overview Synesis [PDF], 2011.

Chomsky, N. (1989). Necessary illusions: Thought control in democratic societies. Toronto,
Canada: CBS Enterprises.

Schell BH (1994). The ominous shadow of the CIA has imprinted itself on the brain research community. The journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 5 (1), 38-40 PMID: 11653317

Moreno, J.D. (2000) Undue risk: secret state experiments on humans. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.

Image via Justin Huang / Shutterstock.

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life
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